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Challenges of postmodern youth ministry: reaching the unchurched

We’re doing a series on Postmodern Youth Ministry this week and the challenges it brings. After a brief discussion of what postmodernism is exactly we’ve examined the meaning of truth in postmodernism and how we can communicate the Truth to a generation that doesn’t believe in absolute truths. Today we want to study another challenge postmodernism brings us: the issue of reaching the unchurched.

Friendship evangelism under attack

Friendship evangelism by peers has been the  ‘golden standard’ in evangelism for the last decade or so, but it’s being challenged by the effects of postmodern culture:

  • Church attendance is declining, making the number of young Christians smaller and smaller. That’s an even bigger problem if you realize this generation of young people is the single biggest generation ever (1). That leaves us with very few Christian young people to reach a huge mass of unchurched youth.
  • Those young people that do still come to church don’t always adhere to ‘orthodox Christianity’ (for lack of a batter word), but often have a faith that isn’t exclusively Christian or exclusively focused on Christ (see the discussion on Moral Therapeutic Deism in the post What is postmodernism). That makes them less than suitable for spreading the good news, since they haven’t exactly found that good news themselves.
  • A third aspect is the effect of extended adolescence, which results in young people postponing becoming an adult with the accompanying responsibilities. Evangelism, reaching your peers, that sounds like a very adult and mature thing to do for many young people and often they see it as something they’ll ‘do later in life’. Also, they feel like they’re not ready to share their faith yet, like they’re too young.
  • The basis of friendship evangelism (namely spiritual conversations with your friends in which you slowly discussed Christianity) is threatened by how postmodernism views truth and religion and by the extreme tolerance it brings. Striking up a spiritual conversation won’t be a problem, but proposing Christianity as the single only ‘right’ religion, that’s not something that runs contrary to modern culture.
  • Another objective of friendship evangelism was often for young people to invite their friends to a youth group activity or event. That particular style may no longer fit this postmodern generation, who is far more focused on community, relationships, experiences and authenticity.

friendsRe-evaluating our approach to evangelism

In Europe, we’ve seen the effects of postmodernism on youth evangelism in general and peer friendship evangelism in particular for some time. It has made me and other youth workers re-evaluate our evangelism approach because peer friendship evangelism alone wasn’t working anymore. So how do we approach this challenge of reaching the unchurched with a postmodern youth ministry? I would suggest two things:

  1. A holistic approach to strengthening youth’s faith and skills
  2. A branching out in evangelism approach

Strengthening youth’s faith and skills

If we want our young people to spread the good news, we have to make sure they know it themselves. Discipleship is key here, we need to build our youth’s faith up from the ground, consistently and diligently. And discipleship is more than just knowledge, it has to touch hearts, heads and hands. We need to install in our youth a Biblical view of who they are in God’s eyes, we need to help them find their identity in Christ. From that conviction that God has chosen them to be used by Him, we need to teach them the skills to go forth and tell the nations.

Branching out in evangelism approach

We can’t rely on ‘just’ peer friendship evangelism anymore, though we shouldn’t let it go. We need to diversify our efforts to reach unchurched youth by meeting them where they are. For many of them, coming to a church or a church-type event is two bridges too far. So we need to come to them, look them up where they are, meet them in their needs. Then we can share the good news with them.

I don’t think there’s one right way to do this, because it’s very dependent on where you are, on the specific needs and issues among the youth in your town or city or neighborhood. It can be a drop-in center, a skateboard ministry, a homework assistance center, training in job skills or simply a listening ministry. You just need to see and try what works in your specific setting.

Is your church ready for the unchurched?

One question remains: is your youth ministry, is your church ready for the unchurched? Dan Crouch asked himself this question in a recent interview in this site and rightly so. As church attendance declines and more and more young people grow up without ever having set foot in church, reaching them may mean introducing them to church for the very first time. Inviting completely unchurched youth into church will be disruptive, challenging and sometimes downright annoying…are you ready for this?

It will mean you’ll get confronted with issued you’ve never had to deal with. You’ll have to take moral stands in things you may not be sure of. It will challenge your traditions, convictions, your nice comfortable existence as a youth ministry and even your theology. Are you ready for this?

In Western Europe, I think we’re making this transition now. We’re in the process of adapting how we do church, how we do youth ministry to the challenge of reaching the unchurched. That is: some of us are, because we know that if we don’t, we’ll lose this generation forever. It’s a scary process, one with many obstacles and roadblocks along the way. We need God’s guidance more than ever before. But we know what’s at stake and we’ll keep trying till we find a way.

How are you reacting to the challenge of reaching the unchurched in a postmodern world? Is your youth ministry ready for this?

(1) This and other very interesting facts about this generation of youth can be found in Tim Elmore’s Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future
[Image via Ramsi Hashisho on FreeImages]
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